Opposition leader Isaac Herzog said on Monday that right-wing members of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud party blocked a potential peace deal that could have “changed the face of the Middle East.”
The opportunity came during the ill-fated negotiations held between Messrs.Netanyahu and Herzog aimed at bringing his Zionist Camp party into the government coalition in 2016, he said.
In an interview with Army Radio on Monday, Herzog confirmed a report published earlier in the day in Haaretz about a secret meeting between himself, Netanyahu and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo in April 2016 to try to renew peace talks with the Palestinians.
“As Netanyahu was…unable to lead a real peace process, namely due to his right-wing coalition partners, international and regional powers reached out to Herzog through various channels. They told him that due to the new circumstances, a change in the right-wing coalition was critical for the regional initiative’s success,” Haaretz wrote.
“Once he [Netanyahu] brought in people from his own party,” including Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, Herzog said, “they smashed the whole thing to pieces.” Haaretz said it did not learn of the secret meeting from Herzog but from a source no longer in politics.
“The state of Israel could have been in the midst of an incredible regional peace process that we haven’t seen since the founding of the state,” Herzog told a weekly Zionist Union meeting on Monday.
“Netanyahu is the one who went soft, he betrayed the opportunity, and gave in to pressure by [Yerushalayim Minister Ze’ev] Elkin, [Tourism Minister Yariv] Levin, and [Jewish Home leader Naftali] Bennett,” Herzog charged.
Eventually, the negotiations to bring Herzog’s party into the coalition failed in February 2017. Instead, Avigdor Liberman’s was brought in to broaden the one-vote majority in the Knesset, and Liberman was appointed defense minister.
When the story broke, Herzog faced a storm of accusations within his party for seeking to enter the coalition at any cost, despite repeated statements that he was committed to toppling Netanyahu, not saving him. His explanation concerning a historic peace opportunity as justification for coalition talks was derided, and Herzog was sworn to secrecy about the regional talks. Monday’s report and Herzog’s comments come at a time when he again faces a leadership challenge in Zionist Camp, and it will likely improve his chances at staying in the chairmanship.
Herzog also said that Netanyahu says things privately to leaders in the Arab world that he does not say to the Israeli public, though he did not elaborate.